Saul David Alinsky (1909-1972) was a leading organizer of neighborhood citizen reform groups in the United States between 1936 and 1972. He also provided philosophical direction for this type of organizing movement.
Saul David Alinsky was born in Chicago, January 30, 1909, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Benjamin and Sarah (Tannenbaum). Saul's parents were divorced when he was 13 years old, and he went to live with his father who had moved to Los Angeles. He later returned to Chicago to study at the University of Chicago from which he earned a doctorate in archeology in 1930. Upon graduation he won a fellowship from the university's sociology department which enabled him to study criminology. In 1931 he went to work as a sociologist for the Illinois Division of Juvenile Research while also serving at the Institute for Criminal Research and the Illinois Prison Board. At this time he married Helene Simon, with whom he had two children, a son and a daughter. His wife died in a drowning accident in 1947.
In 1936 Alinsky left his positions with the state agencies to cofound the Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council. This was his first effort to build a neighborhood citizen reform group, a form of activity which would earn Alinsky a reputation as a radical reformer.
Back-of-the-Yards was a largely Irish-Catholic community on Chicago's southwest side near the famous Union Stockyards, which had been deteriorating for many years. Alinsky organized his neighborhood council among local residents willing to unite to protest their community's decline and to pressure city hall for assistance. The council had great success in stabilizing the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood and restoring the morale of local residents.
With this success behind him, Alinsky in 1939 (with funds from the Marshall Field Foundation) established the Industrial Areas Foundation with himself as executive director to bring his method of reform to other declining urban neighborhoods. His approach depended on uniting ordinary citizens around immediate grievances in their neighborhoods and stirring them to protest vigorously and even disruptively. In Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals (1946), he explained how neighborhood residents could be effectively organized as activists for reform.
For many years Alinsky's neighborhood reform work disappeared from public attention, and he became best known instead for his 1949 biography of the famous labor leader John L. Lewis. Alinsky admired Lewis because he had proved especially adept at organization building and using mass pressure to win reforms for his followers. When a wave of reform swept the American nation in the 1960s Alinsky again commanded public attention. A critic of many of the decade's young radicals who spoke the language of violence, Alinsky instead called on reformers to be more practical and to use the self-interest of ordinary citizens as the primary force for increased political participation. "A guy has to be a political idiot," he told radicals, "to say all power comes out of the barrel of a gun when the other side has the guns." For Alinsky, power came from stable local organizations and political participation by aroused citizens fighting for their rights.
President Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty" offered Alinsky a grand opportunity to put his ideas about neighborhood reform into practice. In the mid-1960s he founded a neighborhood (TWO), which the journalist Charles Silberman called "the most significant social experiment going on among blacks in America today." Soon thereafter Alinsky moved to Rochester, New York, where his Industrial Areas Foundation organized local African American residents to pressure the city's largest employer, the Eastman Kodak Company, to hire more African Americans and also give them a role in picking the company's employees. Simultaneously he participated in a federally-funded leadership training institute at Syracuse University which had been created as part of the "war on poverty."
But Alinsky's technique of rubbing a community's sores raw alienated some leaders, and in 1967 Alinsky found himself without a contract. He promptly labeled President Johnson's policies "a huge political pork barrel." At the same time he found it increasingly difficult to work with local African American groups which were then being swept up in the concept of "Black power" and who found it irksome to function under white leadership. Thus at the end of the 1960s Alinsky turned to training white middle-class citizens to organize and protest against the deterioration of their marginal urban and suburban neighborhoods. Always on the move, he organized white worker councils in Chicago, steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Indians in Canada, and Chicanos in the Southwest, where he influenced Cesar Chavez, who was later to found the first successful labor organization among California farm workers.
In 1971 Alinsky published his third book, Rules for Radicals: A Political Primer for Practical Radicals, in which he distilled his basic ideas concerning neighborhood reform. A year later, on June 12, 1972, he died of a heart attack near his home in Carmel, California, leaving his third wife Irene (his second marriage in 1947 to the former Ruth Graham had ended in divorce in 1970).
Further Reading on Saul David Alinsky
Two brief sketches of Alinsky can be found in Who's Who in America 1970 and the obituary notice in the New York Times June 13, 1972. For Alinsky's ideas about protest and reform one might consult Marion K. Saunders, The Professional Radical: Conversations with Saul Alinsky (1956). For a study of one of his neighborhood groups in action in Chicago see Robert Bailey, Jr., Radicals in Urban Politics, the Alinsky Approach (1972).
Additional Biography Sources
Finks, P. David, The radical vision of Saul Alinsky, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Horwitt, Sanford D., Let them call me rebel: Saul Alinsky, his life and legacy, New York: Vintage Books, 1992.